Summer 2003
No Use Complainin’
From a Zimbabwe Diary

By Richard Czujko

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There was a backlog at the crematorium in Harare, as gas for the furnace has been virtually unobtainable. The undertakers apologise for the inconvenience and promise that professional standards would be maintained. This was just one of the problems bedevilling everyday life in Zimbabwe, yet both busi- nesses and ordinary citizens calmly go on with their lives as best they can.

As shortages and lack of services worsen, people have adapted and found ways to overcome them. A network of interdependent contacts has been built up, through businesses, churches and families, and has become vital for survival. A well-prepared household would typically include gas and electric stoves, generator, gas cylinders and fuel containers in its effort to remain self-sufficient, but this sort of preparation alone is not enough. People also have to know when and how supplies of scarce commodities can be obtained and by what means they are likely to be delivered.

Fuel, or rather the lack of it, is a prime example of how resourceful people have had to become. The only petrol stations with fuel are those few desig- nated to supply commuter taxis. No other garage has fuel and, as staff cannot be laid off, excess personnel have in effect become glorified security guards. Harare residents have given up queuing for what has invariably turned out to be phantom deliveries, and petrol is being traded on the black market. I obtained some from a friend who had a business contact, although it was at a rate three or four times higher than the official price. This still worked out to be about the same as the South African price, since the official fuel price is controlled by the government and is much lower than the black market price. 

Numerous Zimbabweans, even some taxi owners, sell their allocations on the black market at a profit, and the streets are incongruously crowded with new German and Japanese cars. But a common sight is a bus or car parked at the side of a road with a plastic or tin container standing next to it. There its driver stoically waits until someone stops to sell him a few precious litres.

Another entrepreneurial activity that has sprung up during the crisis is supplying banknotes. The banks are critically short of notes and numerous ATMs have closed. So people have appeared who will provide Zimbabwe notes, preferably in exchange for rands or pounds. As the largest denom- ination of a Zimbabwean note is five hundred dollars, this means that suitcases or satchels are required to carry around any meaningful amount of cash. In desperation the government recently introduced travellers checks as bank notes. The populace has generally been dismissive of this ploy.

I met a retiree who had only been able to obtain twelve thousand dollars (less than fifty rand) from her bank, and asked her how she coped. “We only eat once or twice a day, and draw money whenever we can,” she said. Like so many other people, she was adapting to the hardships as best as she could. Even bank staff tend to be sympathetic. At one branch where the maximum amount for withdrawal was ten thousand dollars per day, the teller sympa- thetically confided to me that more notes might be available in a couple days. 

The struggle for simple survival has forced Zimbabweans to look beyond their country’s borders, not for foreign intervention but for jobs. Families try to send at least one relative to South Africa or overseas to earn hard currency to send back to Zimbabwe to support those left behind. In this way a  large number of expatriate Zimbabweans is contributing significantly to the economy. 

The housing market remains fairly buoyant as overseas buyers with foreign exchange regularly take advantage of bargain prices. I observed one case where a retiree moving to England sold his Harare house to another Zimba- bwean already working in the UK. 

As a result of the day-to-day struggle, politics has taken a back seat for the ordinary Zimbabwean. They certainly do not look for relief from the outside world, and even President Bush’s recent African safari did not raise much interest. People were more concerned that the opposition party’s mayor of Harare had been suspended from his duties and charged with mismanagement for sacking workers arbitrarily and not providing an adequate water supply. According to one resident I spoke with, the mayor’s only crime was that he had been trying to make the city function despite a lack of cooperation from President Mugabe’s Zanu PF ruling party.

Occasionally there is a bit of humour to lighten the general gloominess of life. There had been no refuse collection in the capital for some time, and residents had been burning or burying rubbish that could not be recycled. “We Zimbabweans could teach you South Africans a few things about waste management,” joked an acquaintance.

Even a customs search at the border produced a smile on the guard’s face. Two white males in a Gauteng–registered vehicle (Gauteng is the South African province which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria) led to the inevitable question: did we have any weapons? After being assured we did not, the official declared with an almost straight face, “That’s good, because Zimbabwe is a peaceful country.”

One weekend the appropriately named Phoenix choir in Harare provided a concert of light music. The loudest applause was for an adaptation of a Gershwin song from Porgy and Bess:

“I got plenty of nothin’
And nothin’s plenty for me.
I got no fuel--got no flour…
No use complainin’!” 

The economy may be crumbling, but the resilience of a people who once endured fourteen years of economic sanctions under Ian Smith may yet be enough to avert complete collapse.

(Richard Czujko was born in Zimbabwe and now lives in South Africa. he has visited Zimbabwe three times since the present crisis began nearly four years ago. "My concern is that if this crisis is not resolved it will have a detrimental effect on southern Africa as a whole.")